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Observations and Microblogs from the Career Support Group of ex-IIScians

In the #MarchForScience: Just Imagine

in That Makes Sense by

Of the weird things I have on my bucket list, one has always been being part of a protest. Filmy that I am, the vision of me marching and shouting slogans has always seemed immensely appealing. Maybe it’s the idea of being a part of something bigger than me, even if it’s just for a fleeting moment. But it would definitely make for an interesting experience and a good story. Today, I sort of fulfilled that wish. Today, I marched for science.

Today, I marched for science.

Technically speaking, this wasn’t the first march I’ve attended. A couple of months ago, I braved the cold winter weather to participate in a small local march in support of Planned Parenthood and women’s rights it stands for. It was a lot like a traditional protest with people standing out on the road waving signs. People passing by in cars, enthusiastically honking to show support or else pointedly staying silent. And then the actual march, led by a police car to clear the traffic, while we shout out catchy (hopefully) slogans, the tail end of the group often a beat or two out of sync with the front. Then comes the traditional group photo at the end of the march, words of encouragement, a plea for continued support by the organizers and then we disperse. It was a fun experience, with the quintessential satisfaction that comes with standing up for a cause that matters. But if you asked me what concrete goal was achieved by that march, in all honesty, I wouldn’t have an answer.

But changing the world is a tough job.

It’s an issue that has often been debated in my house. If you choose, for a moment, to play the devil’s advocate, you can easily question the utility of such a one-off act. It’s not a pessimistic viewpoint, just realistic. You can shout out slogans for a full day. All the opposing party has to do is block their ears and ignore you and all the effort is wasted. If a person’s mind is made up then it’s not very likely that a few slogans, no matter how catchy, will change that; especially since they know that our view towards them is pitiful at best and antagonistic at worst. Maybe a few people who are undecided might hear us and change their mind, but that’s a slim chance. I know, this sounds super pessimistic. But changing the world is a tough job. Hell, changing the opinion of even one person is a tall order, then imagine what it would take to change the world! But if I truly think that marches are a hopeless endeavor, then why go today?

A few months ago, I waged a teeny tiny war with a stranger on Facebook. A “facebook friend” of my colleague posted an anti-vaccine article on his wall and I decided to help set him straight. Of all the debates around science, vaccines are the one issue where the skepticism is almost entirely without foundation and the benefits are unquestionable. I went on with the task determined to be polite, direct, concise and precise in my arguments. I wanted to debate in a way that would not seem like an attack but rather a calm rebuttal of the fallacies in his argument. We had a couple of back and forths, at the end of which, predictably, nothing was achieved. I failed to change his opinion. But somehow I still felt good about it.

Science and Facts are worth the fight.

For once, I felt like I had done my duty as a scientist. I stood up to someone, to defend the facts. It didn’t change his mind, but his misinformation did not go unchallenged. My dissent officially marks his post and there’s some measure of satisfaction in that. And it’s not just strangers. Even in my own family, close family in fact, there are many with opinions which are not based on evidence and logic. For years, I have been supportive of the bad experiences that have informed these opinions. But I realize now that I am doing them a disservice by keeping what I know to be facts from them. Running away from a debate just because it takes effort and might be futile is not excusable. The goal may be to win, but a loss doesn’t lessen the value of the fight. Science and Facts are worth the fight.

Which is why today I marched for science. I know what some of you might say to this. Didn’t I just write a whole paragraph about marches being futile? To be completely honest, going in to it, all I expected was for it to be a fun personal experience. I spent an evening making posters with colleagues. It promised to be a good time with fellow scientists supporting a worthy cause.  But being there actually made me realize how much more it represented.

There was something really magical in the atmosphere, something very powerful about so many people gathered to send out a positive message rather than shouting slogans against something or someone.

March for Science, inspired by the women’s march in January, started out relatively small. But over the past couple of months, the idea spread across hundreds of cities in the US and across the globe to march in support of science to mark Earth Day. In Boston, where I attended, the march had appropriated the massive Boston Commons for the event and it was filled with thousands of men, women and children all carrying colorful and witty posters in support of the cause. My favorite part of the evening was just watching the people around me. There was something really magical in the atmosphere, something very powerful about so many people gathered to send out a positive message rather than shouting slogans against something or someone.

More than anything else, I was in love with the idea of the Kids zone. I think it was a brilliant idea by the leadership of the march. Organizations from across the city had set up stalls to engage children in activities. There were kids blowing beautiful smoke rings in the air, learning to inject medicine into teddy bears and small girls building structures using straws. Looking at all the excited, engaged faces took me back to a lecture I recently attended by a famous professor at Brown, who is deeply engaged in public outreach. He spoke of his own childhood; how as a kid there was no need for anyone to push him into science. The space race in the US and good science programming on TV, was more than enough to spark the imagination of his entire generation. Finding a way to light that spark for the current generation, would probably be much more effective than countless debates. And today at the march, I felt as though I could see that happening.

Be it on stage or in the activities around it, the march found a way to give voice to people of all ages, genders, abilities and ethnicities. The inclusivity and diversity in the event gave it the personal connection that so many other scientific events completely lack. I imagine news channels all over the world covering the event, showing examples of so many diverse people and cultures successfully represented in science. I imagine this image sticking with kids, giving some child somewhere the hope to dream big. I imagine those kids at the march, going home and torturing their parents by asking them endless questions and insisting on building bigger and better things with straws. I imagine scientists and educators looking at the crowd around them and realizing, maybe for the first time, the number of people they could positively impact if they choose to step out of the lab more often; how dire the need for their participation and help actually is.

After all, the best things in life come from the power of our imagination.

I probably sound silly, imagining away in a manner only John Lennon would appreciate. For all my talk, I don’t know if this will make me do more outreach in the long term. But it gave me hope. Hope, that even if we don’t change the administrative policy for science in the short-term, that we would have ignited the minds of the people today. Hope that events like this would give us a future generation that might learn from the mistakes we made. It might be foolish and optimistic, but for once I am content to indulge myself. After all, the best things in life come from the power of our imagination.

Edited by: Abhinav Dey, PhD and Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

About the author:

pic

Namrata Iyer has completed her PhD from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and is currently working as a Postdoctoral research associate at Brown University, Rhode Island. Her current research focuses on the interactions between the gut microbiome and the host immune system. Her interests include teaching and writing. This blog has been posted previously in her personal blog (http://namrataiyer.blogspot.com/2017/04/just-imagine.html)

 

Creative Commons License This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

 

 

Planning ahead – From academia to Siemens Healthcare

in Face à Face/That Makes Sense by

Transitioning from academia to an industrial position involves meticulous thinking and planning. In other words, a candidate must exploit all the resources that their academic environment provides them and use them to their advantage for a successful progression into industry. Sarmistha Ray-Saha, a Senior Biochemist at Siemens Healthcare, NY, obliged to share her transition journey with academic professionals at the NYC-PhD CSG Coffee Chat held in February 2017.

Moving across continents

Sarmistha pursued her undergraduate education in Chemistry at the University of Calcutta (CU). But as it is with many students, Sarmistha was confused about the next step. As she would put it, “I had no clue what to do post Bachelor’s. Should I follow the herd?” Since she loved biology (which she still does), Sarmistha decided to explore the field of Biotechnology for her Master’s at the GCGEB in CU. The program was incredibly well designed and structured, introducing students (some for the first time) to a world beyond academia. The department proactively organized regular visits to various research institutes in Kolkata. Students were given the opportunity to participate hands-on in the lab, all the while interacting with scientists in highly applied fields of research.

Truly speaking, my Master’s was the most formative in taking me beyond my books and unravelling what biology, technology, research and the outside world is about.

“Truly speaking, my Master’s was the most formative in taking me beyond my books and unravelling what biology, technology, research and the outside world is about.” Pursuing a PhD was undoubtedly the appropriate next step. She credits her training at the GCGEB, and NCBS, Bangalore (where she was a JRF) for her eventual acceptance into the MB&B PhD program at Yale University.

Academic roller coaster

Sarmistha thoroughly enjoyed her PhD, however somehow felt isolated. “I would be in my own little corner and would worry about the actual impact of my work with respect to the society.” The feeling of uncertainty with the outcome of an experiment after investing a credible amount of time slowly grew up on her. “When I started my PhD, I had the thought that I would become a professor one day to truly contribute back. I have tremendous respect for university professors, their dedication towards research and their ability to manage laboratories, all the while mentoring students and helping them earn their degree. Two to three years later, I started realizing that it may not be where my aspirations lie. I would like to pursue science within a team and stay in the realm of wet-lab biochemistry and biophysics. Also, in order to pursue a faculty position, I would have had to produce more high-end publications to stand level with the many deserving candidates.” It was time for Sarmistha to explore options that could propel her career into industry.

Understanding industry

If a career in industry was what Sarmistha wished to pursue, it was elemental for her to understand how industries that operate within the scientific domain function. Importantly, one must also learn how to present themselves. Yale University provides a great informational resource regarding career development for its graduate students and postdocs. “I attended presentations by company representatives, career forums, writing workshops and what not. After a certain length of time I could use the newly gained knowledge to write my own resume, cover letter and present myself. I’ll always be indebted to Yale for providing access to such resources.”

Subsequently, Sarmistha started handing over her resumes to the company representatives who’d visit Yale, “We’ll get in touch”, they’d say. It never happened. “It was clear that my resume was not where it needed to be to get noticed.” But the presentations were invaluable. Sarmistha learned about the background of the company professionals, the divisions they work in and the company itself.

One thought nevertheless bothered her, “If others could transition, why not me?” As with many, sometimes it does creep in within us that we as PhD graduates could satisfy the role of a technician in a company. This is not the right thought. If one wants to be a technician, then the transition should probably be made right after undergraduate studies. PhDs are mostly over qualified for such roles. This is what most recruiters would say. A company will likely not want to underpay a PhD. However, most career forums will discuss how PhDs can only be over qualified in the field they are in, but not so if there is a career shift.

So, do not be disheartened if you are not able to transition post-PhD, you can do so after your postdoc. However, network extensively from the start or during your PhD. A solid network is an important part of the industrial job search process, post-PhD.

Many companies do require that PhD graduates undergo a postdoctoral training. Earning a PhD demonstrates one’s capability to execute a project. A postdoctoral tenure highlights that one can do so independently. For companies, this is an important skill! And realistically put, postdoctoral training does lend maturity and confidence in scientific thinking and analytical reasoning by building upon skills learned in graduate school. “So, do not be disheartened if you are not able to transition post-PhD, you can do so after your postdoc. However, network extensively from the start or during your PhD. A solid network is an important part of the industrial job search process, post-PhD”, Sarmistha chips in.

The transition

Since Sarmistha realized that a postdoctoral term would be valuable, she chose to move into more of an applied field – GPCR research at the Rockefeller University. “Yale had provided me the foundation for transition. My postdoctoral term gave me enough time to develop myself, foray into new research projects, troubleshoot, mature further and develop new contacts.”

A small typo, a wrong punctuation or a misaligned paragraph can close doors for the application review process.

“I was at a resume and cover letter writing workshop where I connected with a postdoctoral services representative from Duke University“, Sarmistha recalls. “She was extremely helpful, provided suggestions and that too selflessly!” Sarmistha realized, which we too should realize, the importance of presentation. A small typo, a wrong punctuation or a misaligned paragraph can close doors for the application review process. One must be very critical of their own write-ups.

Sarmistha found the job advertisement while searching through job links. However, she wanted to learn a bit more about the advertised position before the application. Sarmistha got in touch with a coworker who had a LinkedIn connection at Siemens Healthcare. This connection bore fruit, and the Siemens professional agreed to an informational interview. In this context, it is good to expand the connections in LinkedIn as much as possible. Any contact made during forums, network sessions, trainings etc. can be a connection even if there was no personal meeting, simply by extending an invitation with details of the meeting venue.

The informational interview

An informational interview represents talking/meeting someone who’s in a position that the applicant is interested in or randomly meeting someone who’s in a job that the candidate aspires to be in the future. It’s about understanding the roles that a particular job entails in a broader sense, without probing too much (for instance asking questions pertaining to vacancies). The interview should be leveraged to learn about a day at work, or the feasibility of working from home for that particular job etc. Being too specific during an informational interview makes people uncomfortable. One session should not run more than 20-30 minutes.

Job descriptions are a great tool to learn about skill sets a particular position demands. It’s imperative to write cover letters and resume specific to the ad of interest, hence providing a better hit on the resume scanning software.

This was not Sarmistha’s first informational interview. She prepared her questions well in advance. Having started her timer right on call, she was ready to wrap up at the 25min mark. The person on the other end reiterated specific points in the job description that are important to the applicant’s skill set. Sarmistha went back to the job ad and read between the lines. “Job descriptions are a great tool to learn about skill sets a particular position demands. It’s imperative to write cover letters and resume specific to the ad of interest, hence providing a better hit on the resume scanning software.”

Take home message

“Be proactive. List your contacts, go to the company page, do informational interviews. Some job advertisements may not directly list your technical enterprise, but terminologies can easily overlap. Careful reading of the description is very important! Be grateful to the rigorous graduate training and postdoctoral research that have honed your analytical skills, and leverage those in your job interview. All those years of research are invaluable for you to develop into who you are.”

Finding the best fit is vital, as in, giving a thought about the kind of work that will keep you happy.

“There are some other aspects of the industrial environment one must meticulously consider. Finding the best fit is vital, as in, giving a thought about the kind of work that will keep you happy. For ex. consider whether a job that entails a lot of conversation and less bench job would suit you or vice versa; or would you prefer a profession that involves dressing in suits vs. casuals.” Do a personal evaluation, and be honest to yourself.

A job in a company may not allow a lot of freedom to conduct research at will. Such a scenario may not suit those who are comfortable pursuing their own scientific goals. Some companies run wellness programs or workshops where an employee is given the opportunity to develop skills like leadership and communication. Participation in these groups allow for constant growth above and beyond the assigned job.

An industrial profession will challenge you periodically. You will have to prove your worth time and again.

“An industrial profession will challenge you periodically. You will have to prove your worth time and again.” This, along with the nature of the work, keeps Sarmistha motivated. Since she works on assay development, Sarmistha looks forward to the day when her products will be used in clinics or hospitals.

 


About Sarmistha

Sarmistha’s multidisciplinary journey has kindled her understanding towards signaling pathways in diseased states. Her interests overlap exploring protein diagnostics and therapeutics, from conception to assaying. Sarmistha also actively participates in science communication, teaching and outreach activities, as an avenue of bringing awareness about human health in this biotech era.

I defended my PhD.

in That Makes Sense by

A year ago today , I defended my PhD.

It wasn’t easy. I was in a new country, a non English speaking country. I remember the first few days upon reaching, I was so naive and so excited. All I had known about Paris till then was the romantic Eiffel tower and the historic streets of Paris, the ever beautiful image that media always portrayed.

Paris was vastly different, in far so many ways than I could describe here. It was as if I was redefining myself and all that I had learnt the 20 odd years throughout my life were being slowly replaced or altered- and at most times, I did not even realize it.

This was probably the biggest challenge I had faced and a real one at that. I landed in a country barely knowing anyone, barely knowing the language and barely knowing what it held for me and yet I knew for the first time, I had a one – way ticket and I did not know when I would go back.

I remember not having a friend or a family beside. I remember my fears trying to break in and mingle.I recall the days I spoke so little or none at all. I remember seeing an Indian guy at my residence one day, whom I approached so gladly to speak to, only to realize he didn’t speak a word of english and barely understood me. I recall being ill not being able to go to an English doctor, lying in bed in my little studio, alone, without a voice for a week, realizing how I couldn’t run to my mother or my friends. I remember going to a bakery not knowing how to order for a bread I wanted and walked off not wanting to hold the queue. I remember drawing out experiments so people I worked with could understand what I meant, I remember mastering google translate as all the emails came only in French, yet only to understand less than half of it. I remember I missed the registration for the french language classes because even those emails were in french. I remember how French cuisine smelled so delicious and yet since i didn’t eat meat, there were mostly only boiled vegetables and French fries that often ended up on my plate.

I recall how I lost track of my friends back home, how their lives carried on and how I could never fit in right back. i remember the nights I spent on Facebook looking through the photos my family or friends had uploaded and wishing I was a part of all that. I remember loved ones falling seriously ill and me not being able to be there and feeling helpless. I remember the loss of a loved one and I remember helping others cope with it. I remember how my mom could never cook my favorite dishes and how my family did not enjoy them till I was back a week each year. I recall my first lone birthday and I also remember handling and going through all sorts of cultural shocks. I remember speaking home once a week because the timings were always so bad and calls back home were expensive. I remember speaking properly (or tamil, my mother tongue) that once a week as well. (There was no whatsapp or at least, It wasn’t at all popular during that time).

I remember a lot more… I remember the coldness of Paris, the cold nights I walked alone facing my fears, facing a different reality and pursuing my dreams…

Gradually of course, the winter got better and the coldness gradually subsided. Spring and summer did come. I wondered if it was because I had become accustomed to all this coldness but I was sure I felt so warm inside. I formed a new found family, friends I had never thought I would make. A support that led me defend my PhD, people whom I would forever be grateful for.

Some days I would lose hope but Paris always taught me life was worth it and that my dreams were worth the fight. I learnt the way things worked. My system got rewired. I went for three evening French classes apart from work. I broke my fears, I would go to a boulangerie to order my favorite baguette, I could watch a French movie without subtitles, I tried to speak french and I hung out with french mates (who later grew to become family). I grew to realize I cannot be at two places at once and grew to accept growing apart as growing up too. I learnt that the place I left wasn’t the same place I had in mind whenever I went back, places I had frequented disappeared, new buildings appeared, people had also matured and changed just like the places did. It felt strange. However, I soon realized I wasn’t the same person who left too. I had changed just like them and I realized change wasn’t a bad thing. I was finally merging in and moulding a life in Paris: One that later got filled with beautiful friends, rich memories, new hopes and aspirations and a new found strength.

And at the end of these extremely special four years, I defended my PhD. I got certified in French. I wrote my first three pages of my thesis dedication part in English, Tamil and French, respectively. I could converse my delight in French and feel appalled about the affinity I felt to it. The doctorate was a lot more than a dissertation. It was symbolic to my beautiful years of warm winters and cold summers.

Now, I have left that beautiful nest, the little home i built, that has transformed me so much and will forever be a part of me. I have moved around so much in my life and Paris will always be a part of me just like, or even a little more than, the other lands I belong to and am proud and grateful for.

I miss you Paris and I thank you for my doctorate, not just in science, not just from Pasteur.

And as for you, USA, I am eagerly waiting for your warmer days…

P.S I am so thankful and grateful for having all of you. Thank you for believing in me.

This is for all of you… and to all those people who travel away from family, friends and everything they knew… only to slowly build a new little home away from home.

About the author:
 Mathura is a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) in the field of Personalized Medicine/Pharmacogenomics and at present a Research Scholar at Harvard Medical School as well. She has extensive scientific research experience and training from top international institutions in Europe, Asia, and the USA.
She is not only deeply passionate about personalized medicine but strongly believes in using advances in science and technology to optimize and improve healthcare and is constantly working towards that one pursuit. Mathura graduated with an Honors degree in Biomedical Sciences from the National University of Singapore, Singapore and later obtained her Ph.D. with Distinction in Genetics from Institut Pasteur, Paris. Among her various interests, she has a keen passion for communicating science and culture – through writing and photography.
This blog was originally published by Mathura on Linkedin

Going Back to Home Country?? A Question of Concern

in That Makes Sense by

Image source

Editor’s Note: Home is where the heart is, yet a number of times there come’s a moment in our life when we are expected to take a pragmatic decision. We leave our home country, family, and friends in search for a better future and life. However, often we face the dilemma of staying back and making the foreign land as our new home country. In such instances, what is expected of us as a responsible resident and as a responsible citizen? Megha Dubey takes you on an exciting journey sharing her thoughts!- Imit Kaur.

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), everyone in this world possesses the freedom of living and movement across the world. Several people traveled thousands of miles to fulfill their dreams and want to live in a place where they get golden opportunities and receive credit for their hard work. The United States of America is exemplary in this regard, accepting millions of immigrants every year. India is amongst one of the potential countries playing a significant role in the migration of the people towards the USA.

I read an article “Why I Moved Back To India after 10+ Years in the USA” written by Nupur Dave and found it so interesting and heart touching. I felt so connected with the writer and thought that it is a story of so many Indians living unhappily in the USA. I shared the article with brilliant minds on Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM PhDs to see what other people think about this issue. It’s so amazing to see that like many other things; Indians have diversity in thinking and perspectives towards such matters. Many people think it’s always good to return to your home country so that you can do something good for your parents, your family and friends and especially for your country. A place where no one will ever point a gun towards you and says, “get out of my country.”

Alternatively, people have security issues in India. A girl has to think twice before stepping out in the night. Moreover, almost everyone is concerned about the physical attacks, Our so called culture system always have restrictions on the girls which is the reason why so many girls do not want to go back to the country where they can not feel safe and free. Such situations demand immediate attention. All these issues lead to the loss of many great Indian people every year who could do great things for India but moved to the USA for a better living.

Even though everyone has the freedom to speak and move across the world; one always feels like an outsider in another country and might not be accepted by some of the people. In short, it is always a personal choice to either stay on the foreign land or to move back to the home country. However, one needs to ponder if and to what extent will that decision provide contentment. Also, how is one paying back to the society with that decision?

About the author:

Megha did her PhD in 2016 from CDRI Lucknow (Pharmacology Division) where she was working on oxidative stress induced post-translational modifications in neutrophils and then joined Stanford University in September 2016 (Department of Microbiology and Immunology). Her current research interest is in the role of gdT cells in infectious disease.

Edited By: Imit Kaur

Blog Design: Abhinav Dey

Featured Image source: Pixabay

Creative Commons License
This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

From the Right Sense to that Perfect Shot: Anand Varma from National Geographic

in That Makes Sense/Theory of Creativity by
Honey Bee Larva in Plastic well plate

“But it seems to be less obvious somehow that to create anything at all in any field, and especially anything of outstanding worth requires nonconformity or a want of satisfaction with things as they are. The creative person — the nonconformist — may be in profound disagreement with the present way of things, or he may simply wish to add his views, to render a personal account of matters.” wrote Ben Shahn.

Working on my unconventional thesis on “creative folks in science communication” I happened to bump into Anand Varma, a science photographer by profession. If you love National Geographic, you might be able to locate his featured work there. Anand Varma shared his stories from his childhood and more with SciWri.

Curiosity and spirit of adventure dominated Anand’s childhood. He grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. Encouraged by his parents, he was found running into the creeks in the forest that extended beyond his backyard. His attention was captured by the leaping frogs and the trailing ants; he observed and tried to comprehend them as much as he could.

A bioluminescent mushroom from Brazilian forests.

This idea of observing the world around and exploring outdoors was, and remains, the motivation of his pursuits.

During his early teens, he was fascinated with different kinds of fish. His love for fish was so captivating that the idea of being an ‘ichthyologist’ enthralled him. Once he learned that one could be a scientist who observes fishes for a profession, it was the most obvious thing to do.

Soon after, he set out to be a biologist. One summer, he got the chance to assist and travel with a National Geographic photographer, David Liittschwager. That’s when it hit him that a photographer is as much as a scientist, exploring unknown, documenting it all through the eyes of an optical lens. Re-evaluation of his choices and aspirations led him to weigh his decision to be a science academician.  Academicians focus on a narrow question and spend a lifetime of work towards answering the same question in-depth. He realized he was someone with a short attention span and greater love for outdoors and exploration. A career in photography would allow him to stay outdoors, have fun exploring the world, meet interesting people, and understand a diverse set of problems that affect our world. He believes self-analysis and constant revaluation of interests and openness of mind and sight are the way to go forward. Anand believes that narrowing one’s goal to association with particular institute or a particular job may make one indifferent or blind to other good opportunities.

Like many who try to pursue unconventional routes, he grappled with uncertainty and fear of instability in trying to understand his choices and motivation, a process that took about four years. A creative, enriching pursuit was pitted against a comfortable certain path (a tenure track). It turned out that work kept pouringin and there was no time to take a break and reflect upon the choices. Academia became the fall back option and the walk to be a professional photographer continued.

Janthinobacterium growing in petridish.

He feels lucky to have been able to do what he is doing today, which is following his passion and making a meaningful living out of it. “It was so random,” he said, to have made a mark. While the career choice still has elements of uncertainty inherent to the nature of the job, he feels comfortable with his choice.

“Has the advice, ‘follow your passion’ held mettle or not?” I asked Anand. “While it is nice to ‘follow your passion,’ it is not a comprehensive advice,” he mused.  “One also has to find an audience for their love, find a way to connect with the audience. If one wishes to pursue their passion as a career, one has to evaluate the worthiness of their passion for an audience, however big or narrow.” He believes that your passion has to produce something that other people value.

Another thing that comes as part and parcel of this advice is that one must be prepared to live with anxiety and risk. Taking risks and plunging into an unknown experience and surviving them is how one learns to live with the fear. One does not always know what the outcome will be. On the lines of what Maria Popova said, one must regularly update their goals and choice to be on the path. That would mean walking into unchartered territories again and again and having to live with uncertainty and anxiety.

A prepared mind and open eyes are a must for one to be able to evaluate opportunities. He advised that one must not pin goals to a specific job or organization, but rather that goals should be about what one wants to do more generally. He knew that he wanted to explore nature and be outdoors, it was not his goal to work for the National Geographic. This allows one to be open to a wider range of ‘compatible’ opportunities and less dependent of the whims of a specific company or institute. The bigger picture also allows one to identify the ways to connect with an audience.

Close up of female Coppery-bellied Puffleg hummingbird.

He has now been a photographer for a decade. As someone who believes in the evolution of choices and goals, he now wants to improve his storytelling skills and collaborate with talented storytellers in other fields. He aims to find more innovative ways to answer the question, ‘how do you get people to connect with nature?’

As part of understanding what he wants to learn, he and Prasenjeet Yadav conducted a science photography workshop at NCBS, Bangalore. From the questions participants asked, he hopes to identify central ideas about, ‘how does one tell a story?’ The biggest factor, he believes, lies in understanding the audience to know what their interests are; what they already know and how what you have to share will add novelty or value to them.

If one looks at the body of work that Anand has created, novelty is certainly one of his motivations. He seems to have a signature style where he strives to create a novel and striking way to portray subjects that have been photographed previously. I asked him about his inspirations and influences in the making of what I think of as ‘the Anand Varma style’. He said, “It is a personal call most of the time. I took me a long time to make photographs that I was satisfied with.” This is a reminder of Ira Glass’s observation that great artists start with a good sense of taste, and they succeed when they figure out how to produce work that matches the standards they set for themselves.

 

'Mind controller' horse hair worm comes out of house cricket
‘Mind controller’ horse hair worm comes out of house cricket. 

Talking about influences, he mentioned two contrasting themes. His initial training was with National Geographic photographer David Liittschwager. David appreciated the power of simplicity where the subject is drawn far away from its context, and one can enjoy all the details of the subject up to the stray hair on its face. Another influence was from Japanese animation where each frame has so much visual information that it is difficult to blink one’s eyes without missing out on magnificent details.

He strives to find a balance between maintaining simplicity while cramming in visual information to hook the readers. According to him, a good image is one where you would not want to take your eyes off it. The balance between mystery and familiarity is what makes an image striking.

The wisdom he shared with me speaks to the volume of experience he has gained, despite being a relatively young artist. “A wise person is an experienced person. Practical wisdom is a craft and craftsmen are trained by having the right experiences. ‘People learn how to be brave,’ said Aristotle, ‘by doing brave things.’ So, too, with honesty, justice, loyalty, caring, listening, and counseling”, wrote Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe in their book Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. I hope to seek newer experiences actively and plunge right in. How about you?

 

About the author

Ipsa Jain is Ph.D. student at IISc. Wants to gather and spread interestingness. Prefers drawing and painting over writing. Posts on Facebook and Instagram as Ipsawonders.

 

 

 

Walk from academia to photography: Prasenjeet Yadav

in That Makes Sense/Theory of Creativity by

“To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles… And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you’ve ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect — between the two things I’ve mentioned: the floating or the swimming.” wrote Hunter S. Thompson in letter to his friend Hume Logan.

During his journey, Prasenjeet Yadav has shuffled his choices, from what may seem being a ‘floater’ to a ‘swimmer’.  He started out as a science student from a small city (Nagpur) who worked his way up to get a research position at National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), as well as improve his linguistic skills in English. While pursuing research on Tiger genetics as a research fellow, he made the choice of leaving academia and to take up science photography professionally. In this interview he speaks to Club SciWri about his story.

I.J. When and how did you fall in love with science?

P.Y. I was always curious about the world around me and it was the result of my curiosity that made me start caring about science and nature. I grew up in Central India, on my father’s farm near Nagpur surrounded by jungle. ‘How?s’ bothered me as much as ‘what?s’ did. I wanted to understand the behavior of animals, stripes of tigers, color of the snakes, and calls of the birds I would see around me. The folk tales I heard while growing up were laced with wild jungle characters and I would wonder why they behave the way they do.  I often got anecdotal responses from the elders in the village, which did not sound reasonable even then.Science was the lens through which the behaviors made sense. Back in school it was the only subject I studied for,and managed to pass (laughs).

Farm in Nagpur where Prasenjeet grew up

I.J. When was your first brush with the camera?

P.Y. (long story) I was the guy in the school class who did not care about cricket, not a very common place thing among children of my generation in India. I was met with jibes and taunts when I would abruptly talk about the leopard I saw.  I knew then pictures would be the proof of my experiences. I anyways liked the idea of taking a moment from time and give it to infinity. It was profound, so fascinating. My father had some interest in photography. He gifted me a ‘hot shot camera’. It had one roll, one view finder, a lens and you click. I actually had to earn the roll and the allowance to develop by cleaning my dad’s vehicles every morning at 6 AM. I spent my time looking at the world through the viewfinder of that hot shot camera trying to get that one perfect shot. Things changed when I bought my first SLR camera, after coming to Bangalore. After setting up thousands of PCR reactions, I would spend my evening capturing ants and frogs and snakes at the herbarium in the campus.

Praying Mantis

I.J. When did you decide to make the call of going over to photography completely?

P.Y. It was during the time, a year almost, that I spent at the herbarium that made me realize my interest and potential in photography. Honestly, I knew I wasn’t an academic genius, but I was hard-working. I felt that despite getting my work published in decent journals,I was not sure if that is what I wanted to do any longer. However, during my time as a researcher, I spent a lot of my time talking to my engineer friends who only perceived me as a tiger poop collector. I took some efforts to explain them my research, and I realized I enjoy communicating science. It keeps my curiosity alive. During the process of my research, at some point it went into too many details where I felt my curiosity slipping away. While I understand the importance of intricate details in research, I do not feel that I could do this for long.

Steam glory on a leaf

I.J. You often say, “I am made of my failures”. What are the failures you refer to?

P.Y. I think what you define and perceive as a failure really depends on your perspective. At a time, flunking in chemistry exam was a failure. Looking back at it now, it’s just plain hilarious. There was a time in my academic career that I started feeling that I was not satisfied enough. I was failing my own expectations for a good academic career. I realized I was not doing well and there seemed no point in continuing this. I was in a matrix- of science, conservation, and photography and science communication. I was standing at one end and hoping all of it funnels towards me. Well, that was not happening and I felt, I was failing.  I realized I should just change my position in this matrix. Looking back, it was not a very conscious decision, but rather I followed my intuition. I believed if I do what I like; things will eventually fall into place. What was once my ‘failure’, is now my strength. I understand better the science of the subjects that I photograph. I understand the jargons in the community and can make sense of things. The ‘failures’ have set a foundation for leaps in my current choice of career.

I.J. How did people perceive after you ‘quit’?

P.Y. After I quit, I called up my mother who is quite cool, and told her about my decision. She said, ‘Okay, padh-likhleta to acha lagta’ (roughly translates to: Okay, if you had gone on to study, it would have felt better). But gratefully, my parents did not object to my choice. I guess my financial independence also helped. However, I felt like a failure because I quit my research within three years while others had put three decades into their research. I couldn’t help myself out of this. And I feel my own opinions about myself were being reflected in people’s perception of me. And I took their perception seriously; it was a reality check for me to evaluate my situation better.

I.J. What have you been upto since you ‘quit’?

P.Y. I like to observe and observe and observe. I like to identify processes, look for some patterns and tell a story. That’s how I got into science in the first place, seeking a good medium to look for meaningful patterns. I have been experimenting with the camera. I got my first gig by chance. Me and my friend, we were dog-sitting for an NCBS professor while he was away. During that time, a BBC filmmaker KalyanVarma landed up at the house looking for the professor. Instead, they ended up talking to me. They were planning to make a movie on monsoon. I suggested the story of migration by nomadic Dhangars tribe and their relationship with pack of wolves that follow them. Filmmakers got excited by the idea and later I ended up working with them for six months in Central India for the story. After that, I documented a project for NCBS, Govt. of Sikkim and Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment that was funded by Department of Biotechnology. I went to Sikkim and documented the work Sikkim students were doing across various fields on diversity and ecosystem of the state. I developed it into a photo story that was appreciated by funding agencies and the researchers alike. After that, a lot of people who in my perception, thought of me as a failure came around and appreciated my work. It felt nice and made me realize that the work like this has a lot of value.

A sikkim researcher measuring forest cover

Slowly one thing led to another, and I published with many major magazines and newspaper house In India. I realized that the stories I did were not just specific to Indian audience and had international value. They were stories on conservation, climate change, sustainable energy etc. Then I looked for opportunities and found National Geographic Young Explorer grant. I applied for it and actually got it. That is the time when I felt, did National Geographic just approve of what I have been doing! Since then I have worked on various projects with them. They have helped my growth tremendously by sending me to photojournalism workshops, recommending me for several international film and photo festivals etc. I call myself freelance photographer but in last three years, I have freelanced only with National Geographic (chuckles).

Frog mating

I.J. What is your opinion of a good photograph?

P.Y. I believe that a good photographer is not the one who takes a good picture of snow leopard. Snow leopard is exquisite; any picture of it will be worth. A good photographer is someone who can make stunning, novel and an interesting picture of the most common subjects such as ants. It’s the story and perspective that matters more than the equipment.

Scorpion (clicked under UV light)

In conclusion, I would quote Hunter again, “I’m not trying to send you out ’on the road’ in search of Valhalla, but merely pointing out that it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it. There is more to it than that — no one HAS to do something he doesn’t want to do for the rest of his life.”

About the Author

Ipsa Jain is Ph.D. student at IISc. Wants to gather and spread interestingness. Prefers drawing and painting over writing. Posts on Facebook and Instagram as Ipsawonders.

Filing taxes in US for non-resident aliens

in That Makes Sense by

According US tax return policy, every citizen filing tax returns as single gets a standard deduction of $6,300 and a personal exemption of $4,000. Standard deduction is a non-itemized fixed amount that is deducted from the net income. Personal exemption is an amount that a taxpayer can claim as tax deduction against personal income. These values reduce the taxable amount for all the taxpayers. India and USA shares a tax treaty that makes it easier for Indians to file taxes in US. According to this treaty, Indians gets a standard deduction of $10,300 ($6,300+$4,00). This makes tax return process similar to US citizens for Indians. Similar tax treaties for different countries are also available. However, process for Chinese citizens is bit different and requires complex tax return calculations. It is very easy is get confused when it comes to remembering form names for tax purposes. I learnt it in a harder way, so I’ll try to simply things for people.

Forms to know:

 

  1. W4: W4 is an IRS form provided by your employer to declare the amount that will be withheld from employee’s pay for federal income tax (A snapshot of W4 is shown adjacent to text). More you withheld more you get back from tax returns. For a F1 student, graduate school or payroll will help you in filling W4. After filling the form, ask the officer about the amount that will be withheld. It is important to see that you are left with sufficient money for monthly expenditure. 
  2. W2: W2 is a form that is provided by your employer at the start of the year. A sample copy is pasted along with the text. This form declares your wages and the tax withheld by IRS. It generally comes as a 4-copies (there are other versions of it, but none of them concerns us). A copy has to be sent to IRS for federal tax return, another copy goes to state and/or city tax department. Finally, the last copy is for employee’s record. Each copy of W2 will mention where it has to be sent (see the black box at the bottom left corner). W2 is the only way of your communication with IRS. Hence, it is necessary that all the information on the W2 form be verified before filing tax returns. Employer’s and employee’s name and address (blue arrows) and employee’s SSN (green arrow) needs to be verified. The green box on the right shows all your income from a particular employer (you will receive multiple W2 if have more than 1 employer) while blue box highlights the amount withheld by IRS.
  3. 1040-NR/1040NR-EZ:US tax return form is popularly known as 1040. Being a non-resident alien your tax return form will bear a NR designation making it 1040-NR. To further simplify things, an easier version of the same form is available known as 1040-NR EZ (1040-NR easy). However, you will have to make sure which form is the best for you. Depending on your situation, 1040-NR EZ may not be applicable for you. To put it in simple terms, if you are a student or post-doctoral scholar who is filing tax as single (no dependents) you can use 1040-NR EZ. Following links will be helpful in deciding which form to use.

 

How to file your taxes:

 

  1. Many universities provide access codes to certain sites for filing tax return for free. However, this is not universal. Some universities or institutions have no such programs. In that case, one can go to professional tax filing institutions such as H&R block. They will charge you around $10-$50. International students can also use websites such as sprintax (sprintax.com). This is an international student version of turbotax (www.turbotax.com). Turbo tax provides form 1040 and 1040-EZ, which are applicable only for green card holders and US citizens. The best option, according to me, is to look for VITA (Voluntary Income Tax Assistance) centers. They file tax returns for free for people earning less than $54,000 p.a. IRS website provides details about VITA centers and also have a tool to locate VITA centers near you. Some catholic charities also help to prepare free tax returns (This is mainly for NY). Following is the link for VITA center locator. https://irs.treasury.gov/freetaxprep/
  1. Make sure to ask the VITA center if they can file tax for international students. It is possible that not all VITA centers have authorized personnel for international students. If they cannot file your tax, it is likely that they will provide you with the details for nearest VITA centers for international students. You can also call 2-1-1 to fix appointment with VITA centers. ALWAYS MAKE SURE TO ASK WHETHER THEY CAN FILE TAX RETURN FOR INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS.
  2. This is applicable exclusively for 1st year graduate students: A new graduate student is likely to make less than $14,000 in their first year. Filing a 1040/1040-EZ instead of 1040-NR/1040-NR-EZ will make them eligible for “Earned income credit”. This results in extra $400-$500 in their tax return, which appears tempting. You will get suggestions from your friends as to go forward with it, as IRS will not grant you that money if you are not eligible. Since, they are using 1040 instead of its NR version, IRS will consider them as US citizens, and it is highly likely that they will receive that amount. Earned income credit is exclusively for US citizens, and if you are getting that option during tax return then you are doing something wrong. If you are thinking of staying in US and applying for green card, then background check at that time will bring this on top and you will not only have to return the money but also pay interest on it.
  3. This is applicable for everyone: If you have filed 1040 instead of its NR version, then don’t panic. Remember the India-US tax treaty I talked about in the first paragraph. This treaty has saved you. You will just have to file an amendment and that process will transfer your information for that tax year from 1040 to 1040-NR. As our standard deductions are same as US citizens, your tax was still calculated accurately and you owe nothing to IRS. Amendments can be filed anytime of the year.
  4. For J1 visa holders, a 2-year tax exemption treaty is present. There is point to remember for this situation. For tax purposes, US count even a 1-day stay in tax year as 1-year stay. For instance, if you arrived in US on 30th December 2016 you should be eligible for tax benefits for year 2017 and 2018. But according to IRS, you were in US in 2016. This will make a change in calculation making 2016 and 2017 as your two-tax benefit year. So, if possible, try to extend the start or change your trip plans by a week.
  5. Even if you take help from any VITA officers, H&R block and websites, you and only you will be held responsible for any discrepancies in the form. MAKE SURE TO VERIFY ALL THE INFORMATION BEFORE SIGNING THE DOCUMENTS.

 

 

Abhinit Nagar

Graduate student

Department of Immunology and Microbial diseases

Albany Medical College, Albany, NY.

Image source: Pixabay

This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

How to cut through the bullshit with Carl Sagan’s ‘Baloney Detection Kit’

in Sci-Pourri/That Makes Sense/Uncategorized by

A large fraction of the information that we come across online is quite possibly bullshit. The internet has made it very easy for us to access and disseminate unreliable information, transforming the society into an echo chamber of misinformation.  Democratization of publishing and social media have resulted in opinions being marketed as facts. In this era of  #fakenews and #alternativefacts, the ability to cut through bullshit and get to credible information has become an essential social skill.

Although the internet and social media have catalyzed the spread of falsehood, our relationship with bullshit is not new. We’ve encountered it time and again in science, politics, religious philosophies and social practices; however, the current state of affairs warrant the use of skepticism and critical thinking for busting bullshit more than ever.

The art of systematically and logically challenging the socio-political claims and getting to the logical conclusions was perfected by one of the brilliant philosophers of his time – Carl Sagan. In his marvelous book about the philosophy of scientific thought The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Sagan dedicated a chapter to ‘The Fine Art of Baloney detection’. In this chapter, Sagan advocates the need for critical thinking and maintaining a balance between acceptance and skepticism.

In Sagan’s own words, “In science we may start with experimental results, data, observations, measurements, ‘facts’. We invent, if we can, a rich array of possible explanations and systematically confront each explanation with the facts. In the course of their training, scientists are equipped with a baloney detection kit. The kit is brought out as a matter of course whenever new ideas are offered for consideration. If the new idea survives examination by the tools in our kit, we grant it warm, although tentative, acceptance”.

Image Source: Wikimedia (CC)

This approach of baloney detection used by scientists is equally effective in the hands of the general population and can help us fortify our minds against propaganda, falsehood and manipulation. Sagan emphasizes the indispensability of healthy skepticism in everyday life by saying, “when governments and societies lose the capacity for critical thinking, the results can be catastrophic”.

In his baloney detection kit Sagan proposed 9 tools to recognize the fallacious or fraudulent arguments, and to reach to conclusions which follow a true premise. The 9 tools from the kit are as follows:

“Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the ‘facts’.”

Facts are the foundation of any argument or claim. When you are presented with an argument, try to gather facts related to it. Something that you read on social media does not qualify as a fact, because it may just be someone’s opinion and hence may be biased. Check for the credibility of your sources. Make decisions based on verifiable evidence and not gut feelings or opinions.

“Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.”

Debate allows for all point of views to be expressed and relative strengths of evidence, for and against the claims, to be evaluated. A healthy debate challenges the nature of the evidence, methods of data collection, inherent biases in study design, logical progression of thought and the validity of conclusions. Limit the debate to the evidence on the table without introducing personal opinions.

“Arguments from authority carry little weight — ‘authorities’ have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.”

If your boss tells you something is true, it is not actually so unless data supports it. Evidence is superior to all opinions irrespective of rank, position or authority of the person.

“Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among ‘multiple working hypotheses’, has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.”

This one is my favorite.  It essentially means stringing up multiple hypotheses in front of you and trying to poke holes in each one of them based on the theoretical evidence and experimental results. This approach makes you think unconventionally and out of the box. You have the opportunity to put forward your craziest and the most counterintuitive hypothesis. If it stands the rigorous scrutiny of the evidence, it may emerge as the right answer. Approaches like this result in paradigm shifts in science.

“Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.”

Keep an open and fair mind and do not try to keep a hypothesis alive in the face of contradictory evidence. Try to avoid personal bias. We learn something new when a hypothesis is shot down by evidence, seek that knowledge.

“Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.”

Quantification produces a standardized way of measurement and allows for measurements made by different individuals or groups to be compared using statistical tools. It increases precision and minimizes ambiguity, guesswork and prejudice. By relying on quantitative data, you will be able to make more informed decisions.

“If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.”

A chain is as strong as its weakest link. Similarly, if your argument has multiple points, each one of them should stand up to scrutiny, else the whole argument may fall apart. You should carefully analyze the argument and try to strengthen the weakest link.

Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.”

A simpler theory is preferred over more complex ones because simple theory can be tested relatively easily.

“Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much.”

If a hypothesis can be tested and can be refuted in light of evidence, it is called a falsifiable hypothesis. And a falsifiable hypothesis is a good thing. An untestable hypothesis is one which cannot be practically or ethically explored with controlled experiments. Falsifiable hypothesis allows you to learn something new when disproved whereas unfalsifiable are not worth much.

Sagan further writes, “In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do. It helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric”. He warns against the 20 most common fallacies and examples for each.

This timeless wisdom by Carl Sagan has been guiding scientists and nonscientists in their pursuit of knowledge and critical thinking for the past two decades. I hope it will help you cut through the culture of bullshit and reach the knowledge you seek.

About the Author

Gaurav is a biomedical scientist trained in multidisciplinary and multicultural settings. He is currently working on electrical conduction through single DNA molecules in pursuit of developing quantum tunneling based DNA sequencing platform.

An Unlikely Biologist

in That Makes Sense by

Editor’s note: Ever wondered why ants don’t get into traffic jams? The answer could lie in decades of research conducted by ecologists and mathematicians. The resultant Ant Colony Algorithm can be used in solving global problems that include drug discovery and regulating road traffic in big cities. Would you name these ecologists and mathematicians as computational biologists because they went across the aisle to find solutions? In today’s blog from #ClubSciWri, Rohit Arora talks about this interdisciplinary nomenclature conundrum of being an ‘unlikely biologist’ when coding to solving nature’s riddles. Probably a lot of biologists like Rohit are donning several thinking hats and throwing them in the ring too!- Abhinav Dey

 

I graduated a few years ago and to this day when someone asks me about what my PhD is in, I have to stop and think for a second before I respond. Based on my conversations with other PhDs I realized that this happens to all of us, mainly because we tend to quickly ascertain the appropriate level of technical lingo we want to use in our response, based on the technical inclination of our audience. This would be the difference between saying “I’m a Biologist” versus “I’m a Micro-biologist” or “I’m a Micro-biologist specialized in Microbial Genetics” – we know the difference in these statements and realize the scope of biological sciences covered by each of them, but our audience may or may not understand it. In addition to this minor conundrum, when I call myself a biologist, I often end up second-guessing my response. You see, I characterize myself as a computational biologist and it is essential for me get across the computational part of that characterization due to some intangible fear of misrepresentation.

 

While I obtained my PhD in Life Sciences at a department of applied biology, surrounded by cell and micro-biologists, I never received any formal training in biological sciences outside of a couple of courses during my masters and the literature I read during the course of my PhD. On top of that, I received my bachelors in chemistry, and Masters in an unusual (and remarkable) interdisciplinary program at the intersection of nano and biotechnology, which had more application in branches of physics and chemistry than in biology. At this point, I felt most comfortable with chemistry, more specifically physical chemistry (ironically the topic I despised in college), but wanted to avoid benchwork like a plague. When the time came to make a decision about master’s dissertation and when I carefully strategized the best way I could utilize my interest in physical chemistry and aversion to benchwork, I decided to lean on a little-known course on computational chemistry that I took during my semester in Poland. I enjoyed the course and did well on it and could foresee its application in biological sciences (interdisciplinary was the buzzword). I found a lab that would host me for not only my master’s dissertation but also helped me obtain scholarship for my PhD.

 

For the most part my research involved application of in-silico methods to study mechanisms of clinically important complex biological systems, relationship between macromolecule structure and function, and the effects small-molecule inhibitors can have on the function. During my first postdoctoral fellowship I continued research on a similar theme, but in a more commercial setting due to collaboration with pharmaceutical company. It was there that I truly realized the demand and utility of the aforementioned computational of computational biology. It is becoming the one of the primary step in conception of a new drug or treatment, and there lies potential to do so much more. Think about it – looking to optimize traffic signal timing? Look no further than Ant Colony Algorithms, inspired by behavior of ants looking for the shortest route between their colony and food source. Similarly, Genetic Algorithms, based on the principle of natural selection, have been used in protein-ligand docking methods that help to select the best drug candidates against a certain to be tested. If the principle behind two processes is similar, model of one process can help understand the other. While this is a general statement, some process and subject specific approximations are almost always applied. Interdisciplinary, remember? Essentially, this may allow one to thrive in a branch of science without being an expert in that particular branch. Or as Dr. Donald E. Ingber of the Wyss Institute has aptly put, “Nature has no separate departments of biology, physics, chemistry, or engineering, nor does it separate medicine from other industries”.

 

With this spirit and excitement in me I decided to venture into somewhat uncharted waters. Coding. I decided that it was time I learned to develop methods, which may find application in solving problems in biology. I was accepted to work for a lab, which does exactly this. I’ve coded before but mostly to automate small tasks in my otherwise very application-focused work. It took me 4-6 months to get comfortable with my new virtual surroundings, including the new coding language. As I make progress I realize that this knowledge and skill-set can be used in a number of different domains outside of biology including social sciences, economics, finance and healthcare. I have been flirting with the idea of perhaps venturing into something new and see how well I fare. But if I do, will I still be a biologist? Does it depend on how much biology is involved in the problems my work may address? When you take a bite from an apple, is it still an apple? Who decides? I don’t know.

About the author: Rohit Arora obtained his PhD from ENS in France. Post-phd he worked as a postdoc in France in collaboration with a major pharmaceutical company. He is currently a postdoc at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. His research focus includes understanding biological structure-function relationships, and developing novel tools to make sense out of “big data” in biology. He enjoys reading about his newfound interest in history of mathematics, geometry, and philosophy. He can be reached on Twitter @RealRohitArora (sure, you try and come up with a better handle for name this common)

Feature Image source: Pixabay

This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Facing adversities with alacrity – the odyssey of an aspiring Data Scientist

in ClubSciWri/Face à Face/That Makes Sense/Theory of Creativity by

There’re always stories about people who flourish or aspire to flourish while tackling challenges and setbacks during their training or profession. This time I bring to you the adventure of Urszula Czerwinska. Urszula, or Ula as her friends call her, is a Ph.D. student at the Institut Curie, Paris. Throughout her higher education, she’s donned the hats of an entrepreneur, a blogger, and that of an aspiring Data Scientist. She’s encountered her fair share of challenges during her education, but as we’ll learn, it’s the perseverance that drives a person to fulfil his/her passion. Ula’s tale highlights the determination and resilience required to achieve what at one point may seem inconceivable.

“I’ll never doubt that my parents have always had the best intentions for me. But they believed in the idea of ‘predisposition’. Simply put, one must perfect their skills for the talent they possess, rather than learning something completely new. That’s why I never got involved with sports, I didn’t go to art school (my drawings were good, but that wasn’t enough). I was shy as a kid and that’s why my parents advised me to choose a career that doesn’t involve a lot of social interaction. I don’t agree with the dogma of predisposition any more. Of course, it’s easy for some to be good in maths and for others in sports. But it doesn’t mean that one cannot learn. People change, I changed a lot through my experiences. I don’t aim for the Olympics, but I feel content going to the gym or dance classes. I previously considered it as a waste of time as I couldn’t be the best at them. And that so because I wasn’t ‘predisposed’ to sports. In my opinion, our future lies in our own hands. We can convert our weakness into strengths, only if we want to, and if we are ready to invest our time and efforts doing that. I also think that we have the capability of changing our thinking – to forge the path of our education and our career. It’s actually a proof that we can always get better and improvise.” – Urszula ‘Ula’ Czerwinska.

The journey begins – there’s plenty to learn

Ula’s Polish. She left for France at the age of 18 to pursue a joint degree in Biology and Mathematics in Roscoff. During her Bachelor’s, she studied an entirely new subject – programming. “And here’s the funny part – I sucked at it in the beginning”, she says. “I had troubles typing on a French keyboard (which is an AZERTY one)! While most of the students were finishing their exercises, I was still looking for the “?” button on the keyboard.” At one point, self-annoyance took a toll on her and she spent a lot of time studying using online resources. “Once I understood the logic of Python, the rest went smooth. I absolutely nailed the final project, and subsequently, I applied for a short internship in Bioinformatics at the end of my second year.” Ula also had the chance to study in Singapore as an exchange student. There, she shared classes with students who had completely different backgrounds than hers, such as, business. It was very enriching for her as she was exposed to the tools they used – like Prezi – and applied it to her own life science projects. She mentions a thought by Walt Disney that drove her, “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them – This quote motivated me to take the decision in my early years to go to France and fight for good grades.”

While she was finishing her Bachelor studies, Ula’s heart remained close to biology since it seemed like a mine of complex problems that she could solve with mathematics and programming. After applying to several Systems Biology Master programs across Europe, she finally chose the most flexible one in Paris at the Center of Interdisciplinary Research, supported by the Bettencourt Foundation. The uniqueness of this program was that a big part of the curriculum was designed by the students themselves and involved several internships. The coordinators encouraged the students to take part in initiatives, create thematic clubs, and of course, have fun with what they did. She decided to spend some time in a lab in Institut Curie, what would later become the home for her Ph.D. “I had to program in Java, and I had no clue about it. I spent half the time teaching myself and that too in a specific context of a software on which I had to work on. I felt demoralized as I was not progressing anywhere, and to make things worse, my supervisor left for 3 months. I was completely lost! But I started asking for help from postdocs in my lab and finally succeeded in coding a part of the software – it even got published!”

The following experience, although discouraging (as Ula would put it), was life changing for her – the iGEM competition. It’s an international competition in Synthetic Biology: modifying organisms to solve real world problems, or to the least, have fun. Her team worked all summer as an interdisciplinary unit to develop beauty products that would help people smell better though reprogramming their skin microbiome. The very idea of creating a product, something that people could use in their everyday life in itself was highly motivating for her. Their team also consisted of designers who helped them a lot with product design and attractive visuals. “This made me realize that science is not necessarily research, it’s very diverse.” Consecutively, during the final internship of her Master’s, she partnered with her friend and colleague Cristina Garcia Timermans to launch a startup called Eco-Smart Solutions. It was aimed at designing probiotic cleaners.

Eco-Smart Solutions – a beautiful failure

The startup was co-founded by Ula and her colleague Cristina, driven by their entrepreneurial enthusiasm after the iGEM competition. Initially, their idea was to design a probiotic cleaner containing bacteria that would eat dirt. This product would clean deeper and independently of the surface texture. Most importantly, it would not result in the creation of chemically resistant bacteria. The to-be treated surface’s natural microbiome would’ve been regulated by their cleaning microbiome, hence preventing the creation of a biofilm to which dirt sticks.

They discerned that the Paris metro system would be a great place to start, as it’s very hard to clean. Furthermore, it’s being cleaned using water at a high pressure that has a detrimental effect on the walls. “We even met the R&D team of Paris metro, but they said that the metro was clean, and basically that was it.” The team did not give up yet. Guided by their teachers, they continued with the project, but in the form of studying the microbiome of Paris metro. This would 1) unveil the metro’s micro-diversity, and, 2) aid them with designing a customized product.

Probiotic cleaners are wide spread. They’re used in hospitals across England, and on a regular basis in the USA, especially for cleaning animal farms (probiotic cleaners have positive impact on an animal’s health). Therefore, they also decided to test the existing probiotic cleaners and natural cleaners like soap. “We had a lot of fun in the lab that was not high-tech, and working with a tight budget within a short time.” They spent their days in the metro collecting samples from stations per their own protocol design. “And in the evenings, we would attend startup events and pitch competitions.” The samples they collected were sent for sequencing, but they encountered issues analysing them. “We asked a bioinformatics research team at the university for assistance and it turned out that the DNA we had collected was not of good quality. Hence, we couldn’t draw any conclusions from the analysis.” As conditions would turn out at the end of their internship, Ula and Cristina decided not to carry on as full-time entrepreneurs as at that time they didn’t have enough capital, and in parallel, they both had secured Ph.D. opportunities.

“We failed, but it was a beautiful failure. We created and executed a project form A-Z, learnt about visualizing aids, making a business plan, and studying the market. Although our skills and resources were not sufficient, I am incredibly fulfilled with this experience.” Right at this moment, a Polish saying crosses her mind which as Ula puts, matches one of the negative aspects of her character. “I’d rather die on my feet, than live on my knees” – Emiliano Zapata. She explains, “We need to be flexible nowadays, and sometimes, we need to get down on our knees to stand up later.”

Crafting the path of a Ph.D. – the challenges ahead

Ula started her Ph.D. in the same lab where she previously interned during her Master’s – engaging in unveiling the complexity of transcriptomic data with unsupervised learning. “This was perfect for me! I had to search for factors that drive biological processes in the ocean of noise.” The lab had also secured funds specifically for her, in case she didn’t secure a scholarship. “What I encountered next was one of my biggest failures, and it hurt my ego a lot!” Ula had applied for a Ph.D. scholarship with a career defining project in mind. She’d also apply for an MBA program for Ph.Ds. “During that time, I was convinced that I didn’t want to stay in academia and so, this project was the perfect opportunity for me. I could accomplish as a researcher while gaining access to management jobs right after my Ph.D.” Unfortunately, she wasn’t selected for the final round of interviews, and it disheartened her. “I even thought of giving up on my Ph.D., but I decided against it as I liked my topic of work.

Severely demotivated and lacking a vision for herself, Ula attended a Ph.D. talent fair in Paris. She realized that companies look for analysts with her skills sets – machine learning, R, Python. She received the same impression upon conversing with the representatives of one company. “This moment opened up a whole new universe for me – Data Science.” Following this defining moment, she decided to craft her extra training skills using free online resources and courses to ultimately land the job of a data scientist following her Ph.D.

Ula describes herself as an aspiring data scientist or a budding data scientist. There’s no definitive explanation for Data Science. “To me, Data Science is analytics, data visualization, machine learning, database management and big data.” Or to be abstract, it’s more like detective work: looking for patterns in data, building predictive models from data, and shaping the world based on accessible information.

For a layman – let’s say there’s a playground where a lot of kids are playing. Every kid is different, but they share some similar characteristics – hair colour, dress type, behaviour etc. Now if we look at say five more playgrounds and try to search for the same characteristics, we’ll end up with some properties that are either common or discrete amongst the kids. Using these properties (data), we can try to predict a prevalent picture (model/pattern) of the characteristics/behaviour of most children. Therefore, what we end up with is a meaningful description of the existing information. This is what Data Science looks like. But of course, it’s not this simple.

“Indeed, the Harvard Business Review has cited Data Science to be the ‘sexiest’ job of the 21st Century”, but why is it so appealing? “It’s appealing due to the power it gives to the companies in all sectors – finance, medicine, education etc. Given the vast availability of resources, it’s also not the hardest profession to move into or learn.” What’s sexy about Data Science is that it’s a relatively new field, geographically unbound, and is spreading like wild fire across all industries and disciplines.

Blogging – a tool for personal branding

Ula’s also a Senior Blogger for PLOS Computational Biology. “PLOS Computational Biology is very generous with its titles. I am a regular contributor for them.” She received communication from PLOS while she was about to attend an international conference on computational biology – ISMB in Orlando, USA. They were looking for live-bloggers for this conference. “I was already thinking of setting up a personal blog at that time, and the communication from PLOS turned out be the right trigger for me.” PLOS appreciated her initial work, and therefore, she continues to write for them on matters pertaining to computational biology, in addition to Data Science and associated Ph.D. careers.

Her personal website highlights the versatility of her writing skills – from career transition to live blogging. As she humbly mentions, “Honestly, I don’t think I’m a good writer. My English is far from perfect, but I keep working on improvising it by reading a lot. The Economist has turned out to be a great resource for me. I also think that apart from me writing the articles that I publish with PLOS, the hands of the editors also wean magic and make my scripts smooth. And as far as content is concerned, I try to be honest and share my experiences and thoughts. Funny as it may seem, I don’t take my writing to be versatile as I don’t write about travels, cooking etc. I only cater to what concerns me the most – Ph.D. and Data Science.”

Writing for her takes a lot of time, but once an article is published, it provides Ula a lot of satisfaction as her audience can read and review her point of view. Plus it’s still faster than writing and publishing in peer review journals.

The Pivigo Ambassador – another feather on the cap

Once Ula defined Data Science as the domain of interest for her Ph.D. studies, she started researching in-depth about it – more so about the skills needed and how to acquire them. There were and still is a range of online courses and materials. “I also subscribed to many mailing lists of Data Science websites”, she discloses her secret to me.

Pivigo – The Data Science Hub as it states on its website is a data science marketplace and training provider based in London. Ula’s determination in exploiting available resources led her to this platform and found the S2DS (Science to Data Science) program. S2DS is a program that helps Ph.D. students or postdocs in STEM to transition to Data Science. Their program takes place both in London and online. Students work on real problems of companies and are extended job opportunities following the program. “I would like to consider this as an option at the culmination of my Ph.D.” Interestingly, Ula found an advertisement about their ambassador program in their newsletter. “I contacted their community manager and I agreed to be the Pivigo ambassador in Paris.” Ula was already settling in.

“My role is to mainly spread the spirit of Data Science and information about the S2DS program”, describes Ula. They’ve also proposed that if she organizes any events in Paris that revolve around Data Science, Pivigo would support her. Ula chips in, “Most importantly, although this role is not a formal engagement, it has inspired me to instigate the community and create a Data Science Club at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (CRI).”

Lessons from a journey well taken – an inspiration for everyone

For Ula, the journey as an entrepreneur, blogger, and an aspiring data scientist has not been easy. She deems herself fortunate enough to meet her colleague turned friend for co-founding the startup, and to convince their teachers for investing in it. “Although we didn’t play high risk, we didn’t also lose a lot of money, but most importantly we gained a lot in experience”, she confides in me. “I don’t treat blogging seriously as it’s a new role for me. I don’t even force myself to write regularly – I just follow my inspiration. I guess, the hardest part is Data Science. I realize that I need to prove myself in this field and it’s not easy for me with the workload of being a Ph.D. student”.

The time is ripe for Ph.D. students to explore resources outside their lab in addition to polishing and nurturing both new and existing skills. Curiosity and determination play an important role in achieving success. But some may feel diffident to do so. Ula adds, “I reckon if someone is shy, the best way would be to find a buddy from their lab or institute who can accompany them for some outdoor ventures. It’s more motivating to give a joint effort as we feel less insecure. It’s also crucial to realize that courses and networking are not side activities – they are as important as or even more important than your experiments, if you want to continue your career outside of academia.”

Alice Roosevelt Longworth once quoted, “Fill what’s empty. Empty what’s full”. It reflects on the idea of not only enjoying life and taking the best from it, but also share with others our own knowledge, competency, philosophy, and ideas.

Ula’s now following her own plan of gaining skills, reading, and interviewing companies. She also feels that being a part of the Ph.D. Career Support Group keeps her motivated for achieving her goals. She’s optimistic and hopes that future employers will recognize the passion in her for Data Science. And when Ula tastes success in her own terms, we will be there to applaud her.


About Urszula:

She’s a dynamic young scientist with an entrepreneurial spirit and high interest in Big Data, design, fintech & business analytics. She’s a self‐directed innovator working towards creating an opportunity to transition from academia to Data Science companies.

She also runs her own blogging website: https://urszulaczerwinska.github.io/

Follow her on Twitter @UlaLaParis

About Sayantan:

I’m an IRTA postdoctoral visiting fellow at the National Institute on Aging – National Institutes of Health, Baltimore, USA. Apart from science, I invest my time in networking, writing, organizing events, and consolidating efforts to build a platform that brings together scientists and industry professionals to help spread the perception of alternate careers for life science graduates.

Follow me on Twitter @ch_sayantan

 

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